When the throngs of runners arrive on race day, some may assume that the start line, the finish line, and everything in between was preordained, just waiting to be discovered by the event organizers. The reality is that course design involves public safety considerations, politics, science, and aesthetics.
Public safety considerations often involve artificial boundaries. Crossing or running on streets that serve as critical traffic carriers (sometimes called “arterials”) is one limitation. Construction zones are always a challenge, particularly when designing a longer course such as a half marathon or marathon. Even the staff size of a police or public safety department in a particular municipality may influence whether more mileage is in that city or an adjacent one. The local police, public works departments and traffic engineers essentially have veto authority over course designs.
Politics play a role since people in positions of influence, such as owners or board members, may want the course route to go through (or not go through) a particular area of town. At times, these voices can be in conflict with one another or with the wishes of the event staff. The race director is then forced to play the role of mediator as they try to satisfy multiple constituencies.
The science of course design may seem straightforward: go out and design a course of X miles with a defined start location and/or defined finish location. Modern online tools like mapmyrun streamline this part of the process but don’t necessarily make it easy. Achieving an exact distance can be challenging, especially when the start line and finish line are pre-defined and the number of streets or turns available are limited. Courses that overlap take this science to an entirely new level, becoming almost rocket science. In addition to achieving a defined distance, it’s critical to choose routes that facilitate the placement of support services like fluid stations, medical stations and porta-potties along the route.
Finally, the course route itself should be aesthetically appealing to the participants. While they may have less direct influence prior to the event than the constituencies mentioned above, they will vote by choosing to participate or not. This ultimately decides the future success or failure of the event, which in my opinion makes them the most powerful constituency in the long run. This means that the smartest race director is the one who is able to anticipate the wants and likes of the running community, place that objective above all others, and find a way to get it approved by everyone else.
The staff and I have been hard at work planning this year’s courses. We’ve met with public safety officials, politicians, medical personnel, operational staff and board members. We will unveil our 2014 marathon and half marathon courses this week. I can’t wait to see the runners’ reaction!